April 16, 2007

Students in D.C. Meet Justice Ginsburg ’54

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WASHINGTON — A private gym and the official dining room were just two areas of the Supreme Court building that 40 Cornell students viewed before meeting with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 on Friday.
The VIP tour, given for students in the Cornell in Washington program, was led by Will Rosenzweig ’08 and Jamie Greenblatt ’08, both interns at the Supreme Court this semester. A highlight of the tour included access to a basketball court, located directly above the courtroom, that is affectionately referred to by staff as “the highest court in the land.”
Students also had a chance to view the Court library and the official Court dining room, where Rosenzweig explained that the dining table is reserved for Justices — not even the President may sit in the chairs.
Students met with Ginsburg following the tour and were asked to rise as she entered the Lawyers’ Lounge, a room to the side of the courtroom where lawyers gather before oral arguments. The Justice prepared some remarks about the life of Belva Lockwood, the first woman admitted to argue in front of the Supreme Court and a strong advocate for equal rights for women. Ginsburg recently completed the introduction for a new biography of Lockwood.
Currently the only woman on the Court, Ginsburg spoke of her own career as a lawyer and judge and commented on the problems she was forced to overcome because of her gender.
She spoke fondly of her years at Cornell and told the group she lived in both Clara Dickson and Balch dormitories. Smiling, she said that during her time on campus, “there were four men to every woman — it was an ideal place to find a man, although the women were a heck of a lot smarter than the men.”
After graduation, Ginsburg started law school at Harvard where she was one of only nine women in a class of 540. She joked about having to find a bathroom in a law school where only one bathroom was reserved for women.
After transferring to Columbia Law School and graduating first in her class, she could not find a job with a law firm.
“There were three [reasons I could not find a job],” she said. “The first is I was Jewish, the second was I was a woman and the third was that I had a four-year-old daughter. If a legal employer was willing to risk hiring a woman they were not going to risk hiring a mother.”
Ginsburg enlisted the support of her law professor who called a judge that normally hired Columbia graduates as clerks and told him, “If you don’t give [Ginsburg] a chance, I will never recommend another student to you.”
There was a period reserved for questions following Ginsburg’s prepared remarks. One student asked the Justice whether she agreed with Chief Justice Robert’s recent assertion that the Court should issue more unanimous opinions.
“We don’t take cases that are crisp and clean,” she answered. “We only take them when the other court is divided on the law. We really do try to interpret most dense laws, for example the IRS code, unanimously where what is needed is a crisp answer to guide Americans. We might suppress an opinion [in those cases], but for issues of fundamental rights we have strong views.”
Erik Kollig ‘08 asked Justice Ginsburg whether the death penalty is unconstitutional.
She responded that, “there were two justices that said it was unconstitutional and in every case by doing that they took themselves out of the loop. [T]his is a court with the last word for executions all over the country. I am going to be part of that and have to realize that my decisions can help make law.”
Ginsburg also said that she expects a trend of fewer executions because of DNA evidence and that “if put to a vote for the death penalty it would be passed, but if you give [people] specific cases it might come out another way.”
When asked what role she viewed international and foreign law having in the Court?s decisions, she responded that “I refer to foreign law as an example both good and bad just like I look into lower court cases.”
She spoke of law made by the Israeli Supreme Court and said that “in the United States we have to answer the question of how to preserve liberty in a time of terror, and perhaps it might be interesting to look at Israel’s Court.”
She explained an example of a ticking time bomb “where Israel’s Court was forced to rule on whether torture is legal when the police know that someone has information on an imminent attack.” The answer was never, she said, and explained that the Court stated, “The greatest danger we face as time goes on is because we are so fearful we begin to look more and more like the enemy.”
“[This] was a very impressive experience,” said Crystal Chum ’08, “especially because Justice Ginsburg is an alum and it’s exciting to see important things that people from Cornell end up doing.”